National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: 18th- and 19th-Century France — Neoclassicism

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The French Revolution began in 1789, when citizens stormed the Bastille prison in Paris. Within a few years, France had adopted and overthrown several constitutions and executed its former king. It found itself at war with most of the Continent and endured horrible violence at home during the Reign of Terror. Finally, in 1799, the successful young general Napoleon Bonaparte seized control and, in 1804, proclaimed himself emperor. Though he made important administrative reforms, he was preoccupied by constant warfare and his heroic but failed attempt to unite all of Europe by conquest. After being defeated at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was exiled and the Bourbon monarchy was restored in the person of Louis XVIII.

With the revolution, French painting resumed its moral and political purpose and embraced the style known as neoclassicism. Even before 1789, popular taste had begun to turn away from the disarming, lighthearted subjects of rococo; as revolution neared, artists increasingly sought noble themes of public virtue and personal sacrifice from the history of ancient Greece or Rome. They painted with restraint and discipline, using the austere clarity of the neoclassical style to stamp their subjects with certitude and moral truth.

Neoclassicism triumphed—and became inseparably linked to the revolution—in the work of Jacques-Louis David, a painter who also played an active role in politics. As virtual artistic dictator, he served the propaganda programs first of radical revolutionary factions and later of Napoleon. As a young man David had worked in the delicate style of his teacher François Boucher, but in Italy he was influenced by ancient sculpture and by the seventeenth-century artists Caravaggio and Poussin, adopting their strong contrasts of color, clear tones, and firm contours. David gave his heroic figures sculptural mass and arranged them friezelike in emphatic compositions that were meant to inspire his fellow citizens to noble action.

Among the many artists who studied in David's large studio was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Unlike his teacher, Ingres did not involve himself in politics and spent most of his youth in Italy, returning to France only after the restoration of the monarchy. During his long life, he came to be regarded as the high priest of neoclassicism, pursuing its perfection after younger artists had become enthralled with romanticism. A superb draftsman, Ingres insisted on the importance of line though he nevertheless was a brilliant master of color. A mathematical precision pushes his work toward formal abstraction despite the meticulous realism of its surfaces.


1789French Revolution begins
1793Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette executed. Reign of Terror
1796Jenner introduces smallpox vaccine
1798Napoleon campaigns in Egypt. Wordsworth and Coleridge publish Lyrical Ballads
1799Napoleon elected consul
1801Chateaubriand publishes Atala. Lamarck studies role of acquired characteristics in evolution
1803U.S. buys territory from France in Lousiana Purchase
1804Napoleon crowns himself emperor. Beethoven completes Eroica Symphony
1808Goethe publishes Faust, Part I
1812Byron publishes Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
1815Napleon defeated at Waterloo. Louis XVIII assumes crown
1818Mary Shelley publishes Frankenstein
1823death of Prud'hon
1825death of David
1828death of Houdon
1830Louis Philippe proclaimed French "Citizen King"
1832Berlioz completes Symphonie Fantastique
1842death of Vigée-Lebrun
1848Louis Philippe abdicates. Louis Napoleon elected French president
1852Second Empire begins, Louis Napoleon proclaimed Napoleon III
1857Pasteur studies fermentation, leading to pasteurization process
1862Hugo publishes Les Misérables
1867death of Ingres

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